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Environment and Energy Commission requests study of traffic management systems

Friday, September 12, 2008 | 4:27 p.m. CDT; updated 4:07 p.m. CDT, Sunday, September 14, 2008

COLUMBIA — As cars idle at traffic lights and gasoline turns into air-polluting emissions, officials are attempting to change how Columbia’s traffic lights work.
The Environment and Energy Commission has asked Mayor Darwin Hindman and the City Council to direct the Columbia Public Works staff to conduct a study assessing its traffic management systems.
This is in an effort to determine if gasoline consumption, auto emissions and commuting times could be reduced through the broader use of synchronizing traffic lights in Columbia, according to a letter the commission sent to the mayor and the council.
In the letter, the commission requests that the Public Works staff read the National Traffic Signal Report Card, written by the National Transportation Operations Coalition every two years, and summarizes the potential advantages from an effective traffic management program.
An ideal management of traffic lights would cut delays by 15 to 20 percent, reduce travel times up to 25 percent, cut emissions up to 22 percent and reduce gas consumption up to 10 percent, according to a USA Today survey conducted in 2005 with the Federal Highway Administration and other groups cited in the letter.
There would also be a decrease in driver frustration, a transportation coalition press release said.
The 2007 Report Card gives traffic lights a “D” grade overall based on responses from 417 agencies, representing 47 states and about 45 percent of all traffic signals in the United States, the press release said. The report also includes individual scores for management, signal operation, signal timing practices, traffic monitoring and maintenance.
Fifty-eight agencies had an improved grade from the 2005 Report Card, according to the transportation coalition’s Web site, ntoctalks.com.
After receiving a “C” grade in 2005, Austin, Texas, joined nine other cities nationwide to receive an “A” in 2007 “by  implementing a more pro-active preventative maintenance schedule,” the press release stated.
“Spending no new money, the city of Austin was able to save more than $40 million in operating costs in just one year by simply changing the way it manages its traffic signal operations,” said Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, in the release.
Doggett’s district includes Austin.
If Columbia officials choose to conduct the study using the transportation coalition’s self-assessment form, the results could be included in the next report card, which is expected to be completed in 2009.
Some synchronized lights are already are in place on intersections both northbound and southbound on Providence Road from Rollins to Business Loop 70.
Stadium Boulevard is set up with a traffic responsive system from Broadway to just north of I-70, which looks  at traffic patterns and adjusts  lights for optimal traffic flow, said Scott Bitterman, the supervising engineer for Columbia’s traffic department. These intersections, however, are among 81 traffic signals maintained by the State Department of Transportation in the area. The Public Works Department  maintains the remaining 40 traffic signals, said Richard Stone, a traffic department engineer.
Whether this means that only traffic signals maintained by Public Works will be assessed remains unclear.
“All we can do is hope that the city will ask MoDOT to participate with them, not only in the assessment but also in the efforts after the assessment is completed,” said Bob Walters, a member of the city’s environmental commission.
The commission’s efforts are taking place following a different study that the council approved in August, which will use a budget of $10,000 to investigate the effects of reducing residential speed limits.
During the debate over conducting the investigation, some council members were concerned about the potential strain on the city’s budget, but Walters said he does not think money will be an issue because it’s  conducted on staff time.
“I don’t know if the council would look at it as a budgetary item,” Walters said. “Money could be an issue, but it falls under Public Works staff’s current responsibilities of reviewing existing infrastructure.”
If the study does require additional funding, it could still be worth the investment.
Studies around the country show that the benefits of investing signal timing improvements outweigh the costs by a 40-to-1 ratio, the transportation coalition’s Web site stated.
“It’s a fairly simple request,” Walters said. “I hope that it will be conducted this winter.”


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